Cinema is generally, by dint of how long it takes to write, fund, shoot, edit and release a film, a retrospective artform. However, it is also always viewed through the lens of the world it emerges into. Burden takes a true story, set in the mid 90s, of a South Carolina man. Mike Burden (Garrett Hedlund) has grown up in the Klan, being almost a son to one of the local leaders (an appropriately repellent Tom Wilkinson). Burden gets together with Judy (Andrea Riseborough, terrific as ever, if a little underserved by the writing), and through her is convinced to leave the Klan, which brings his former friends down on him and leads to an unexpected connection with a black preacher, Reverend Kennedy (Forest Whitaker).
This is an interesting moment to be watching a film like this. With Black Lives Matter protests active in many countries and one of the results being the increased discussion of the telling of black stories and the participation of black storytellers it, on one hand, feels topical. On the other hand, Burden is definitely still largely framed from a white perspective. It remains essentially the story of a white man, written and directed by a white man (Andrew Heckler). This is not to say anything about the quality of the film, nor that its intentions are anything less than good. Heckler interviewed Kennedy extensively for the screenplay, and was apparently trying to get this film made for two decades. But it is still worth noting the representation here.
Leaving that aside to look purely at the film itself, Burden is a story we’ve heard before, but it’s one that is pretty well told here. Garrett Hedlund is impressive as Burden, and we can see in his performance the difficulty of working through years of programming and, once Whitaker comes into the picture as someone Burden can see as more than symbol of what he’s railing against, the way that simple—though genuinely incredible—kindness is so confusing for this man who has been hating for so much of his life. Some of the best moments of Hedlund’s performance are in the body language of his discomfort at having his expectations upended.
Forest Whitaker’s soft-spoken power as an actor is well established at this point, and it’s a perfect fit for his role as Reverend Kennedy. Whitaker has a way of making every word sound measured, of demanding you lean in to listen, and that translates into making us believe the characters would do the same for Kennedy. The film definitely paints him as a person of faith and compassion, but it’s the little glimpses of frustration and held in or quietly expressed anger that make the Reverend a rounded character rather than the simple saint it would be easy to paint him as.
While it is a story of redemption, Burden isn’t shy of showing the nastiest side of its title character and his racist cohorts. Wilkinson is chillingly nasty, whether casually telling racist jokes when Burden brings Judy to dinner or, especially, as Griffin tries to indoctrinate Judy’s young son by encouraging him to ‘hit that dark meat’ with a knife he’s given the little boy. This is also where the film feels most relevant to our present moment, depicting the day-to-day realities—whether it be the Police’s collusion with the KKK or the way Burden and his crew treat black people around them (at one point pulling over so two of the group can urinate on a girl from the back of their truck)—that have all built up, on top of the many other issues they are protesting against, into the current BLM protests.
Heckler also isn’t interested in depicting Burden’s change as an easy road. I wonder whether the incident he shows of Mike working construction and flying into a rage over a comment from his black foreman stands for several similar moments in which his old programming clicked back in, but either way it’s an important moment that acknowledges that lifelong assumptions and prejudices are hard to break. It’s also ultimately about the idea that it’s worth letting people try.
On the whole, Burden is well-made and solidly acted all round. However, the film doesn’t entirely mark itself out from others that tell similar stories, and the final moments are more of a stop than a satisfying ending. I do think it would be refreshing to see a different perspective on this kind of material, whether that be as a documentary (there is some interesting footage in the end credits) or as something more definitively centred on the film’s black characters.